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When winter arrives, heaters become a survival tool for businesses

The essential accessory for many businesses this winter is basic, but lately it’s been hard to find: the humble heater.

As coronavirus cases increase and people avoid or are even banned from congregating in indoor spaces, restaurants, hotels and office buildings are installing outdoor heaters on sidewalks and patios in an effort to retain customers. clients and tenants.

The effort can look like an existential quest. An increase in demand has left some products out of stock for months, possibly jeopardizing the prospects of some companies going through the pandemic.

“Surviving this pandemic has become like a war in the jungle,” said Mark Barak, general manager of La Pecora Bianca, a restaurant that has decorated the outdoor areas of its three New York locations with around 70 heaters.

“I joke with my staff that I have become a general outdoor catering contractor. This is how I now spend a lot of my time, ”Mr. Barak said.

Distributors say they are struggling to meet demand.

Gas-Fired Products, a manufacturer of heating equipment in North Carolina, sells three times as many radiators as in 2019, said Paul Horne, vice president of the company. Its products include $ 1,200 versions with closed flames that promise to stay lit in 64 km / h winds.

“Any opportunity that people can find to go to a restaurant or to go out with friends outside, they will take advantage of it,” said Mr. Horne.

Customer profiles are changing, sellers say. Heaters were once found mostly on backyard patios, but they were quickly becoming accessories of commercial buildings.

Just a year ago, companies accounted for 10% of customers for Radtec, a distributor based in Texas. Today that share is 50%, said Adam Minton, the sales director of the company, whose products include table heaters and those in the shape of pyramids.

Interest has come from several northern cities struggling with the drop in temperatures, but New York in particular is a hive of activity, Minton said, adding that the city has gone from “no market” to last year at the biggest company today.

“There is such a demand that people say, ‘I don’t care if it shines or not. I just need the warmth, ”Minton said. “They don’t even ask about cost or area of ​​coverage.”

For some businesses, like restaurants, timing can be critical. As states like California and Michigan try to impose trade restrictions, including closing restaurants indoors, having space outside may offer a chance to survive the pandemic.

“I think it’s going to be a very tough winter and a lot more restaurants will close,” said Andrew Moger, managing director of BCD, a restaurant consulting group whose clients include Westville, Dinosaur Bar-b-que and Benihana.

Soaring demand caught some stores off guard. Large hardware retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot are often out of stock, say shoppers who comb the aisles.

“Like all retailers, we’ve seen high demand for many items, and our merchants and supply chain teams have been working to replenish what they can,” said a spokesperson for The Home Depot.

Many of the outdoor heaters sold in the United States are made in China, which is struggling to keep up with the growing interest. Chinese factories used to take two months to fill Radtec’s orders, and now take three, Minton said.

Still, prices for heaters, which come in propane, natural gas, or electric versions, don’t seem to be climbing yet, perhaps because the sheer volume of business is helping manufacturers cut costs, analysts say.

Despite skyrocketing usage, the cost of propane is just as stable, said Tucker Perkins, chief executive of the Propane Education and Research Council, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In 2019, American consumers burned 284 million gallons of propane in heaters, grills and other appliances, said Perkins. By 2020, that number is expected to nearly double to 500 million gallons.

Still, these small-scale uses are a drop in the bucket compared to consumption in the overall domestic market, which is around 10 billion gallons per year, he said.

New York, which primarily banned the use of gas in commercial heat lamps until the price was reversed in October to help struggling restaurants, “is now the epicenter of growth,” Perkins said , with 60,000 gallons consumed per day.

Getting heaters this summer, well ahead of the winter season, seems like a smart move for business owners. Timely renovations also helped, said Mr Barak of La Pecora, whose SoHo location was under renovation when the pandemic hit.

During construction, workers upgraded gas lines and installed wiring, improvements that might have been difficult to achieve in an already open area, he said. The renovation included wall mounted electric heaters as a backup and a transformer to power them.

To prepare for the opening of La Pecora at the end of last month, Mr Barak also added rows of free-standing mushroom-shaped radiators, powered by both natural gas and propane, along the sidewalk of his restaurant, which can accommodate 80 people outside and 40 inside. In total, the heat-related extras cost “a few hundred thousand dollars,” he said, adding, “I don’t think anyone has more heat per seat than we do.”

New York City may have relaxed some heating rules, but fires remain a concern. Companies are still not allowed to store full propane tanks on site for fear of setting off an explosion. But heaters turn on about four gallons a day – the amount in a 20-pound tank used for most grills – meaning restaurants with heaters that burn day and night may face shortages of. regular fuel.

And existing propane services tended to fall into place early, leaving businesses with late-night hours stranded. To meet that demand, Derek Kaye, who ran a troop of food trucks before the pandemic slowed down business, shifted gears this summer to start NYC Propane Delivery, a six-employee company that supplies tanks to restaurants all over the world. from dawn to midnight. “I hope this will continue,” Kaye said.

Offices are also trying to make their outdoor spaces more comfortable. At Industry City, a sprawling Brooklyn waterfront office, retail and industrial complex, its owners Jamestown and Belvedere Capital Real Estate Partners spent $ 1 million on heaters and tents, purchased this summer, to encourage tenants to socialize in the alleys between the reused brick buildings. About 70 heaters are now installed, including an electric version in an existing yurt, said Kathe Chase, Industry City rental manager.

Of the 8,500 employees who worked at the complex before the pandemic, 50 percent still report to work regularly, Ms. Chase said. At the same time, 500,000 square feet, or 12% of the complex, has been leased since March, she added.

“No one has a crystal ball on what’s going to happen,” Ms. Chase said. “But it’s not just a Covid solution. We think people will live differently after this. “

But not all businesses can heat outdoor spaces, and some are turning to rudimentary alternatives.

Tishman Speyer, a national office owner, is not allowed to place heaters on certain high-story terraces in his Rockefeller Center, fearing the wind could blow them away. Portable heaters also cannot be positioned too close to walls, said Thais Galli, a general manager of Tishman.

But many employees who come to the office – around 15% of the pre-pandemic total – prefer to hold meetings on terraces, so wind-blocking options, like plexiglass screens, rows of evergreens, and plastic igloos, are now under consideration. , Ms. Galli said.

At One Federal Street, a Tishman Tower in Boston, the owner hands out free single-use fleece blankets and woolen hats for those who want a breath of fresh air on the lawn-lined ninth-floor patio, where the Most radiators are also verboten.

“It’s a real work in progress,” Ms. Galli said.

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